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Rethinking the Theology of Prayer (Part 3)

Now, there are several reasons why modern man finds it difficult to relate to such a personal view of God. Much of this problem is because of the technological and secularized world we have embraced since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, if not several centuries much earlier beginning with the Renaissance. Urban living has seriously impacted our collective and individual capacity to experience personal prayer in a variety of noticeable ways.

Prior to the 18th century, it was easier for the farmer to realize to that the success of his crop depended upon weather conditions that were completely out of his control. In a matter of minutes, a severe rainstorm or hail could cause damage to both crops and freshly cultivated soil. Hence, early man’s keen sense of vulnerability led the farmer to humbly rely on a Supreme Being who would look after him and his needs.

In contrast, the majority of the modern world has access to local supermarkets, purchasing whatever he needs. In the event of a shortage, assignment of blame and responsibility falls not on God, but on human agents, after all it is human beings who do all the sowing, planting, weeding, and harvesting. In short, our perceived sense of self-sufficiency makes us feel as though we are no longer dependent upon a benevolent Shepherd Who looks after our well-being.

For this reason and more, petitionary prayer reminds a worshiper just how depends upon God’s tender mercies.

Judaic wisdom teaches that although it is  physician exercises great skill in carrying out an operation, it is God Who grants the physician the skill and wisdom in facilitating healing for his patient, much like it is still God who grants wisdom to modern farmers in developing technology to combat the effects of drought or insect infestations. With each human skill we employ in our technological world, it behooves us to be thankful to God for giving mortals the ability to improve upon nature. Petitionary prayer can instill an attitude of gratitude.

Along these lines, Ramban (1195-1270) writes: God demands naught of the lower creatures with the exception that man should acknowledge and be grateful to his God for having created him. Aside from the advantages of communal prayer, people should have a place to assemble and express thankfulness to God for having created and sustained them, by simply saying before Him, ‘We are Your creatures.’” Ramban’s point is well taken; petitionary prayer prevents people from idolizing themselves as the source of their prosperity and blessings.

The ancient Jewish philosopher Ben Sira touches on the theme of creaturely dependence that we have discussed so far. In his famous tribute to the physician, Ben Sira describes how God bestows goodness unto Creation:

Hold the physician in honor,
for he is essential to you,
and God it was who established his profession.
From God the doctor has his wisdom,
and the king provides for his sustenance.
His knowledge makes the doctor distinguished,
and gives him access to those in authority.
God makes the earth yield
healing herbs which the prudent man
should not neglect;
Was not the water sweetened by a twig
that men might learn his power?
He endows men with the knowledge
to glory in his mighty works,
Through which the doctor eases pain
and the druggist prepares his medicines;
Thus God’s creative work continues
without cease in its efficacy
on the surface of the earth.

(Sirach 38:1-8)



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